For Older Readers

While we lived in Afghanistan, we experienced a microcosm of what the world continues to experience today in the way our emotions jumped back and forth between frustration and surprise and gratitude.

The economic structure of the country mystified us. There were no price tags; we were expected to bargain for everything. Of course we were disadvantaged because we had no idea what anything was supposed to cost, our skill with Farsi was marginal, and we were victims of the idea expressed in an old Afghan story: A king passes through a desert community and is charged the equivalent of $25.00 for an egg. When he protests, "Surely, eggs can't be this rare!" he is told, "No, but kings are!"

Our solution was to have our cook, Siddiq, do all the shopping, but as might be expected he regularly extracted his commission. One evening we asked him to buy two loaves of nan, the delicious flat, whole wheat bread baked in underground ovens or on pieces of hot stone. We loved to eat it with peanut butter and honey. When Siddiq gave us back so little change, we questioned him about the price, but he pretended not to understand what we were saying.

To keep him from getting away with such a trick, we marched ourselves across the street and down to the little bakery where the neighborhood children were standing in line waiting to bring bread home for their family suppers. We intended to learn the price by buying ourselves a loaf.

We were almost at the front of the line, when out came a young woman all excited to see her professor. She was one of Don's students and was overjoyed that we had come to her father's bakery. When we told her we had come for a loaf of nan, she brought out two loaves. "How much is it?" we asked, holding out a handful of coins. "Oh, for you, nothing!" she insisted. "But just tell us how much," we begged. "A gift, a gift!" she repeated.

We went home thoroughly ashamed of our suspicions and in the twenty months more we stayed we never did learn the price of a loaf of bread.

About a month before we were scheduled to come home, we had a spur-of-the-moment idea of giving the neighborhood children a little going-away party. Its failure gives us strong feelings of empathy for those people now working to distribute Red Cross and United Nations aid in the refugee camps.

The idea was inspired by seeing two men pulling a Karachi cart (a wagon) loaded with crudely carved pieces for a merry-go-round and a miniature Ferris wheel. We had seen such contraptions from a distance, but were curious as to how they worked. We asked Siddiq, who also served as translator, to negotiate with the men and see if they would set up the merry-go-round and the Ferris wheel on the street in front of our house. They set it up in a matter of minutes for something like $10.00. Siddiq went in the house to fix plastic bags of goodies and Don proudly used his linguistic skills to write signs in Farsi saying "Free Rides."

All went well for the first few minutes, but then the children multiplied both in number and size. We have no idea where they came from. Big teenage boys tried to climb aboard the miniature Ferris wheel and pile on the merry-go-round. They had no concept of waiting in line or taking turns. Their inclination was to grab bags of candy and run, but then they would look back longingly to make sure they weren't missing something better.

In fear of having their equipment ruined, the two men quickly dismantled it, shoved the pieces inside our gated and walled compound and escaped as fast as they could. They told Siddiq they would come back for it later. When they returned at sunset, they were tremendously pleased to receive an extra tip. Apparently they thought we would ask for a refund because the party was so short-lived.

The most frightened we ever were was when we borrowed one of the official USAID vans and went "sightseeing." We were about forty miles out in the desert with not another person in sight. We parked the van at the foot of a butte and were starting to climb up to get a view of an ancient gateway that now stands all by itself-the adjoining walls and the city having long since disappeared. We noticed a trail of dust in the distance and then saw a big truck coming our way. This made us a little uneasy, but nothing compared to how we felt a few minutes later when we saw that the truck was loaded with men screaming and waving at us. For the sake of the children we tried to stay calm, but the image that came to mind was from old-fashioned Western movies in which pioneer families are massacred and left for dead on the plains.

Thank goodness we didn't let our fears show because as soon as the truck pulled up and stopped we saw that the scary "men" were young teenagers and they were excited and happy. Their high school teacher was one of Don's students and he had told them who we were. They were simply excited to find "friends" this far outside of town.

Another time that we were surprised by Afghan generosity was when several American families gathered on the observation deck of the Kabul airport to say goodbye to a family scheduled to go home after completing their two-year assignment. Ariana Airlines, which we all called "Scariana with three frights a week," departed at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but at 5:00 p.m. on Saturdays. This was the Saturday flight, and the family hadn't realized they were to be there an hour earlier.

As 5 o'clock drew nearer, we began to worry because the family hadn't arrived. Someone said the father had gone out with a private pilot that day to take the photos he had meant to take over the last two years. We gave up on their chances of making the flight, but most of us stayed and went up to the observation deck to watch the plane take off anyway, which illustrates the scarcity of Saturday night entertainment.
It was departure time when a van raced up the road and let the family out. None of us could see what was happening, but we did see the plane trundle out and rev up its engines and start its takeoff. It was past the midway point of the runway, when much to our surprise, it screeched to a halt, majestically turned around, and came back to the middle of the field where it picked up a pale young mother, four self-conscious children, and a chagrined father, along with all their earthly possessions which had passed through Afghan customs in record time.

When the family learned they had missed the plane, the distraught mother fainted, and in a gallant gesture the traffic controller called the plane back. The technical types among us (mostly the engineers) began calculating the gallons of fuel that had been wasted and the dangers of stopping a plane speeding down a runway. The romantics among us (mostly the wives) identified with the plight of the woman and we applauded loudly. In understanding this situation, it is important to realize that the Afghan traffic controller made this decision all by himself. It most likely would never have happened if we Americans had run to him and begged.

Our experience that most resembles - in miniature - America's experiences with Afghanistan over the last two decades occurred one morning when we were on the long straight road leading to Kabul University. We happened to get behind a big truck that was overloaded with sacks of flour. A man clinging to the back was in the terrible position of trying to grab and hang onto 50-pound sacks that were sliding to the sides and flying off over his head. We honked at the truck but got no response. We pulled up to the side and tried to point and communicate in our fractured Farsi that something was wrong. The cab of the truck had been built locally and stretched wide enough to hold an extra passenger to the left of the driver. This meant that our frantic waving and shouting had to go through an extra person before reaching the driver.

The men in the truck did not understand us, and we could see more sacks of flour flying off the back. We pulled in front of the truck and slowed down thinking that the truck would have to stop and then we could show them the problem. Apparently the truck had such weak brakes that it couldn't stop, so rather than running into us the driver aimed toward the side of the road. Instead of having a shoulder, the road had a jui (a gutter-ditch) along the side and the front wheel of the truck caught in this ditch.

We'll never forget the horror of looking back and seeing this overloaded truck teetering and then slowly toppling over with sacks of flour flying off. Don ran back and peeked into the cab of the overturned truck just long enough to see that no one was hurt. Then we fled to the university. When we came back three hours later, we saw no sign of the accident-not even a flour smudge. People traveling the same route to school told us they had seen several men right the truck with ropes and then reload the flour. We assume that this time they tied the flour down; also there probably wasn't quite so much of it.

When we hear people criticize the part that America played in providing weapons and training to the people in Afghanistan who were fighting the Soviet Union, and have since become the Taliban, we humbly remember how we contributed to wrecking the truck. The men obviously needed immediate help. We had the best of intentions, and we felt confident based on having handled other emergencies. But in this situation, we didn't think about the huge communication barriers nor did it occur to us that the overloaded truck would have no brakes.

We don't expect the present problems to be repaired as easily as was the truck wreck, but we nevertheless have high hopes because we know that many Afghans are as desirous of peace as we are. We can't help but think about the ordinary people we knew in Afghanistan as being victims rather than terrorists.